Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Heteroglossia and Fragmentariness in the Absent Therapist by Will Eaves

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Heteroglossia and Fragmentariness in the Absent Therapist by Will Eaves

Article excerpt

1.Introduction

Among the six works shortlisted for the second edition of the Goldsmiths Prize --established in 2013 to "celebrate ... creative daring ... and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form--was The Absent Therapist (2014) by a relatively little-known English novelist, poet, and creative writing teacher Will Eaves. The book's radically fragmentary form--an amalgam of 150 disconnected voices--and its brevity (just over a hundred pages) puzzled many reviewers and left them uncertain if that work should be qualified as a novel in the first place. Critics have referred to it as an "anti-novel"? a "random catalogue of twenty first century scenarios, queries, complaints and observations" (Quick 2015), an "experimental novella" (Woodhead 2014), "a book for want of a more precise term" (Lezard 2014), something in between poetry and a novel (Sweetman 2014), and a "miniature but infinite novel" (Kennard). For the purpose of this analysis--in line with the recent tendency to loosen the generic criteria for what constitutes a novel, as a result of which such works as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2005) and J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) have been accepted in that accommodating category--Eaves's work is treated as an experimental novel. The aim of this article is to examine The Absent Therapist's innovative structure as well as to assert the book's polyphonic nature. The resistance of its constituent parts to fully cohere and yield a unified meaning will be considered as a characteristic feature of the subtype of experimental fiction called fragmentary writing.

The Absent Therapist is divided into five chapters, each of which contains between twenty three and forty three unnumbered and untitled sections, whose length varies between a single line and two pages. The chapters, in turn, are both numbered and titled. All the titles--"The Absent Therapist", "Where Do You Get Your Tired Ears From?", "We Are Prey", "Radio Traffic", and "A Start in Life"-are passages or phrases which feature at some point in any given chapter. Each section takes the form of a monologue spoken by a different person. However, the kinds of speeches delivered by characters do not follow any pattern. Some of them read like self-contained "short short stories", others are completely incomprehensible--cryptic remarks deprived of any context or bits of overheard phone conversations. Certain sections appear to be addressed to a listening "you", whereas others resemble individual thoughts and philosophical meditations.

"There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification", reads the novel's epigraph from 1 Corinthians 14:10. The voices, indeed, do not seem to have much in common, in terms of social standing, education, profession, age, gender or ethnicity. The wide array of speakers includes such individuals as a literature student, a body-builder, a call-centre operator, a hat-knitter, a hotel supervisor, a police officer, a career-counsellor, an experimental psychologist, an actor, and a Jew-turned-Christian geologist. There are very few examples of individuals who could be grouped under a certain heading; the only ones that could are teachers and academics (most of them rather frustrated), loners, homosexuals, and civil rights activists. (1) The first edition's blurb classifies them, rather vaguely, as voices of "sons and lovers, wanderers, wonderers, stayers, leavers, readers and believers". Perhaps the only feature that all the speakers share is having English as their mother tongue; the vast majority of them seem to come from either Britain, the US or Australia. (2)

2. Heteroglossia

The multiplicity and variety of voices contained in Eaves's novel makes it a fine example of Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia. In "Discourse in the Novel" (1982), Bakhtin coins this term and defines it as the novel's essential inclination to accommodate multiple and diverse languages and voices. …

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